Decisions suck. Making them is even worse. And the postdecision remorse? We know. An expert on the decisionmaking process is here to help
• IF YOU’VE EVER GONE TO BED WONDERING how you flubbed so many of that day’s small choices – how did I possibly think two Steers burgers was a good idea for lunch? – then you might reasonably ask how on earth you could be expected to make the grander, more difficult decisions that determine the course of your life: which career should I pursue? Who should I marry? Is that house worth buying? This already unnerving proposition is made even more so when you consider that, according to Ruth Chang, most of us have been approaching hard decisions the wrong way our entire lives.
A philosophy professor at Rutgers, she has intensively studied the decision-making process, using insights from that research on the TED Talk stage and in lectures to the CIA, US Navy, and the World Bank.
And what, exactly, is the major malfunction Chang has found when it comes to making a choice?
It starts with numbers, and our insistence on placing any two things into a quantitative framework. Since any two items with a numerical value can be compared easily, we’re conditioned to believe this applies to qualitative choices, too. When weighing the merits of, say, getting a job straight out of university or completing postgraduate studies, we believe one alternative is definitely better than the other.
This assumption is a mistake, says Chang. And because it’s a mistake, we think about decisions all wrong. We think that a decision is an information problem. When we can’t decide between two options, it’s because we don’t have the info needed to make the best decision possible. If we could just gather enough information, we could be sure (or surer) we’re making the ‘right’ choice. But so often even after we’ve talked to all the right people, asked all the right questions, and gathered all the necessary info, we still can’t decide.
Luckily, Chang goes offers a new system of decision-making that, she argues, won’t just make your decisions easier, but will keep you from regretting those choices once you make them.
So why are hard choices hard, then, if not for a lack of information?
We have to recognise that values like goodness, beauty, the value of knowledge, justice, kindness, moral goodness – those values might not have the same structure as non-evaluative considerations like height, length, girth, mass. And once we accept that, we can see that maybe there’s this fourth possible way two alternatives for choice can relate. And I just call that fourth possible way ‘being on a par’.
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